Tel Aviv — The innocuous nickname of the law — “the arrangement bill” — makes it sound bureaucratic and boring. But that belies a ferocious debate in Israel over a piece of legislation that many believe would mark a landmark in Israel’s policy toward its West Bank settlements.
The law, which is expected to come to a vote in the Knesset in the next week, would retroactively legalize unauthorized hilltop outposts and areas of existing settlements by giving compensation to Palestinians who can establish ownership.
Following years of legal rulings by the Israeli Supreme Court against settlement construction on privately owned Palestinian land — and the looming demolition order for the unauthorized outpost
of Amona — Israeli residents of the West Bank want the government to pass the bill in order avoid orders for the demolition of thousands of settlement homes. (Though the bill won’t be able to save Amona because it won’t be able to retroactively change the Supreme Court rulings.)
“The law is meant to solve a situation for thousands of Israeli families that found themselves, without any harmful intentions, settling in Judea and Samaria with the help of the government — and then the state comes and tells them, ‘Excuse me, we made a mistake, and now we have to move you from your houses,’” said Minister Zeev Elkin, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party in an interview with Israel’s 103FM radio station.
“In some cases we’re talking about houses in towns which everything was fine, and one clear day someone comes and says, ‘Sorry, we made a mistake — you thought you were on legal ground, but it’s actually private property.’”
But many critics of the law — among them Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and leading politicians on the right — see the bill as legal game changer that would amount to a de-facto annexation of the West Bank. They see the law as sanctioning of land theft that would expose Israel to war crimes suits in international courts.
Ofer Zalzberg, an Israel analyst for the International Crisis Group, wrote that the outpost legalization bill will also undermine the standing of settlements near the Green Line that Israel has sought to annex in peace talks.
“The chances that the International Criminal Court [in the Hague] will open an investigation will go up dramatically if the arrangement bill passes,” he wrote. The chance that the international community will ever distinguish among the different settlements “will drop in tandem.”
Passing the bill — also known in Israel as the “outposts law” after the hilltop settlements they are designed legalize — would mark one of the few times that Israel’s parliament has sanctioned legislation specifically dealing with the West Bank, which is technically under the legal authority of Israel’s military occupying forces.
The bill would also defy a 40-year-old Supreme Court precedent in which justices ruled that Israel’s government can’t use private property of Palestinians to build settlements.
“It’s a serious blow to the rights of [Palestinian] land owners, according to the norms laid out in international law for protecting the people under a military occupation,” Eliyahu Matza, former deputy chief of the Supreme Court, said in an interview with Israel Radio. “This is a law that I’d prefer not be brought up for a vote at all. If passed, this law will be an ugly stain on Israel’s law books.”
Benny Begin, the son of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin and a settlement ideologue, once referred to the bill as “the theft law.” Attorney General Mandelblit has decided that the law is unconstitutional and informed the government that he won’t defend it when the High Court hears the petitions that await if the law is passed. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman declared that the law has no chance of being approved by the High Court.
Even Netanyahu has been reported to oppose the arrangement bill. Despite years of efforts by parliament members in the coalition to introduce the bill in the Knesset, the prime minister has stood in the way. According to Israeli reports, the prime minister has expressed concern that the law would undermine Israel’s international standing by prompting lawsuits in the International Criminal Court.
Indeed, the Palestinian Authority this week accused Israel of pursuing a policy of “colonization” and “segregation” in defiance of international law, and vowed to request the ICC open an investigation into Israel’s settlement policy.
In November, when the law was formally introduced, a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University found that 46 percent of Israeli Jews support the bill, while 43 percent agree with the attorney general’s position against the bill.
The same month, Israel’s Peace Now estimated that the bill would enable the legalization of 55 unauthorized settlement outposts, some 4,000 settlement houses, and enable the expropriation of 2,000 acres of Palestinian property. “[It] might also rob the Israelis and Palestinians of the possibility of arriving at a two-state solution,” the group said in a statement.
But this week, Netanyahu seemed to do an about-face by giving a green light in the parliament. “The law is intended to regularize the settlements in Judea and Samaria, once and for all, and prevent repeated efforts to hurt settlements,” Netanyahu said at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, using the biblical terms for the West Bank.
What changed? For one, there’s a new administration in the White House that is less concerned about Israeli building in the West Bank.
“After decades of obsessive persecution by leftist NGOs, the time has come to legalize the settlement enterprise,” declared Betzalel Smotrich, a member of the pro-settler Jewish Home Party and a sponsor of the outposts bill.
“The legalization bill is this government’s first step in the Trump era, and I hope that we have a long march forward in strengthening the settlement enterprise and promoting a national agenda, as we promised our voters.”
Israeli political analysts say the legislation is being pushed now because of the looming evacuation of Amona. After a government plan to relocate the outpost residents to another spot on the hilltop collapsed —because the plots were also found to have Palestinian owners — the arrangement bill was revived in order to give the settlers a political victory and dampen resistance to the evacuation, which has a deadline of Feb. 7.
“The settler movement is Netanyahu’s greatest ally, and also a potential enemy,” said Mitchell Barak, an Israeli American public opinion expert. “He needs them to be in the government and run, but they are also an enemy because they might go elsewhere with their votes. He’s got to keep them calm. If not,” Barak concluded, “he could have a revolt within his government.”